John Lewis

by | Jul 20, 2020

Here is my servant, whom I uphold,
   my chosen, in whom my soul delights;

I have put my spirit upon him;
  he will bring forth justice to the nations.

He will not cry or lift up his voice,
  or make it heard in the street;

a bruised reed he will not break,
  and a dimly burning wick he will not quench;
  he will faithfully bring forth justice.

Isaiah 42:1-3

Last week, I touched on the challenges of churches as we try to become more inclusive of all people who seek Christ’s face. The good news is that I think we have moved beyond the tokenism of pointing at one or two people of color (who are often treated as trophies or perpetual guests), and we are now looking to become one family, working together to utilize a broader collection of perspectives and gifts, which empowers our witness and God’s mission in our community.

I have always believed that one of the stumbling blocks to becoming one intercultural body is technical. If we don’t know how to be with people from different cultures, we will shy away from them, or we will be so cautious that we cannot develop authentic relationship.

In recent months, one of the great lessons coming from COVID-19 is our ability to adapt and be creative if we let go of our attachment to perfectionism. While we have traditionally been afraid of trying something new unless we could be guaranteed we will never make a mistake, we are now forced with a choice: either we risk trying new things, or we cease to exist as a church.  Thankfully, our churches have tried all kinds of things to continue to worship God, care for each other, and care for the world.

And we have made our mistakes along the way, and learned that God is gracious.

Note I said God is gracious—and I pray that people are gracious too! This is our fear, that we cannot tread into unknown territory when it comes to other people, because we aren’t always sure that people will be gracious. I have been saddened to hear white and Asian people speaking of their fear of going into traditionally Black neighborhoods. If I had my wits about me, I would ask what is the basis of their fear? Perhaps because old-time Japanese-Americans in LA lived in Black neighborhoods, we know there is community, faith, and grace, along with the challenges of poverty.

This is why I am happy that the AAPI prayer vigil for Black lives will be held August 1 near the Crenshaw district, which is traditionally one of those Black-Japanese neighborhoods. My grandfather lived there; Steve Yamaguchi’s roots were there. I, of course, grew up in the Black-Japanese neighborhood of West Altadena, where First Presbyterian Altadena is.

Anyway, there are some guidelines for crossing the racial divides. There are many, many books, and I am hoping that we can provide opportunities for folks to get to know each other as people. I hope we can care enough about each other that we will do what caring friends do—we will listen and learn and pray, we will allow ourselves to share our pain, and we will care when our friends are hurt.

This last weekend we have been celebrating the life of Representative John Lewis. The news of his passing brought me back to my one visit to Montreat, the great Presbyterian conference center in North Carolina. There was a massive Presbyterian event there in 2015, commemorating Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s speech at Montreat 50 years prior. I have several highlights from that weekend (including meeting Dean Thompson for the first time). One was seeing John Lewis.

What I remember was not just his words and the enormous respect shown him. What I remember came after his talk. Now I have to preface this with my prejudice, because Rep. Lewis always looked kind of tough to me, like Winston Churchill or the actor Edward G. Robinson. And given his decades of suffering, taking on vicious blows that risked his life so that we might have better lives, given his fame and great work in civil rights and in Congress, I was somewhat intimidated.

What I remember is what I observed, and that is the love and even delight he had in meeting people, all people. His humility and love of people made him the most faithful servant of our servant Lord. And what I’ve learned since then is his adherence to non-violence throughout his life; Bernice King said he was perhaps the only one of her father’s colleagues who upheld non-violent his entire life. Though Rep. Lewis himself had been jailed 40 times and beaten almost to the point of death for the sake of civil rights, he did not fight back against those who beat him, nor did he file charges. His faith also allowed him to be forgiving, to the point of graciously receiving the repentant apology of Elwin Wilson, who had beaten Rep. Lewis almost 50 years prior.

Yes, there are skills of intercultural relationships that we can learn. But the most important thing is to begin with a heart of humility, a heart of faith, a heart of love, a heart for justice. May we live out the Bible we read, and seek to live the grace and peace that has been given us, through Jesus Christ, the same Lord whom John Lewis loved.

In Christ’s love,